Stokes top-scored with 89 as the hosts posted 311 for eight at a sold-out Oval and finished the match with two wickets in as many balls, but his best moment came while he was stationed at deep midwicket – a quite astonishing leaping effort with his outstretched right hand seeing off Andile Phehlukwayo.
On any other day the spotlight might have shone on Jofra Archer, who underlined his fast-growing superstar status with three for 27 and a bouncer that forced Hashim Amla to retreat to the pavilion for concussion tests, but Stokes’ flash of inspiration lit a fuse under this competition.
At halfway there was a flicker of nervous tension about England’s total, despite fifties by Stokes, Jason Roy, Joe Root and Eoin Morgan. In the end it proved enough to win at a canter.
The day had started dreadfully for England, sent in to bat and immediately falling foul of Faf du Plessis’ inspired decision to make 40-year-old Imran Tahir the first spinner to bowl the opening over of a World Cup.
He marked the occasion by bagging Jonny Bairstow for a golden duck – floating, gripping and flicking the outside edge. Tahir sprinted off in jubilation as the capacity crowd took a collective intake of breath. The potential for stage fright was instantly apparent but Roy and Root drew the sting from the situation,
The pair safely added 106, bringing a low-risk sense of calm to proceedings until both fell in the space of four balls. Roy was first for 54, top-edging Phehlukwayo’s short ball, before Root (51) steered Kagiso Rabada to backward point.
Morgan and Stokes picked up the baton and eased into a century stand of their own. The skipper found his hitting range, carving Lungi Ngidi for the first six in the 26th over then rocking back to pull the next delivery for another.
Stokes sparked to life with three boundaries in four Dwaine Pretorius balls, en route to the fastest 50 of the day, before Tahir made Morgan his second victim of the day. The Dubliner had already lofted his third maximum when ambition outstripped timing, the returning Tahir having him well caught at long-on.
Stokes pushed on diligently to his best score in almost two years as the hosts added 76 for four in a back-and-forth final ten.
The early stages of the reply belonged to Archer, who made his presence known in a bullish first spell. Amla exited in painful fashion, taking on a 90mph bouncer and paying with a clean blow to the grille.
South Africa physio Craig Govender completed a lengthy assessment and eventually led the batsman back to the pavilion as he gingerly pressed his temple. Amla’s retirement did not count towards Archer’s wickets column but there was no denying him the next two, Aiden Markram picking out Root at slip and Du Plessis top-edging a pacy bumper to fine leg.
Archer vented with emotion after taking down the opposition captain, roaring his approval as Moeen Ali gathered the catch.
Quinton de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen replied with 85 at better than a run-a-ball but both had scares, the “Zing” bails holding firm despite lighting up after De Kock’s inside edge clipped off stump, and Van der Dussen being dropped by Buttler on six.
Just as the tables appeared to be turning, with 28 runs from two overs, England hit back. De Kock surrendered on 68, heaving Liam Plunkett to Root at fine-leg, before JP Duminy holed out off Moeen and Pretorius was run out from a Stokes throw.
Archer’s second spell was all of five deliveries old when he struck again, Van der Dussen outmatched by a rapid short ball.
Amla would later return after clearance by medical staff but the closing stages of an intriguing encounter will be remembered for Stokes’ athletic brilliance, Rashid the beneficiary of his staggering grab in front of the ropes.
Plunkett accounted for Amla before Rabada and Tahir contributed to a fitting finale, undone by Stokes’ nagging bowling.